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Braving the Post-Apocalypse with “Oblivion” Director Joseph Kosinski

Judging by television commercials alone, it seems like the world is going to hell in hand basket – or in the case of Joseph Kosinksi’s Oblivion, it already did. Part of an onslaught of post-apocalyptic cinematic fare coming our way this spring and summer, Oblivion stands out from the pack due to its sweeping scale, ultra-crisp visuals and, oh yeah, the fact that it stars the likes of Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Jamie Lannister himself, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The film crash lands into theaters everywhere today, but in order to survive the apocalypse in style, I caught up with director Joseph Kosinski underneath the massive Bubble Ship to talk about everything from the film’s M83 score to shooting on brand new cameras to shooting in the wild wastes of Iceland. So, without further ado, read on and get the inside scoop – it’s not like the world’s about to end or anything.

Nerdist: First and foremost, I want to talk to you about the music of Oblivion. In TRON: Legacy, we had a sweeping score provided by Daft Punk. Now, for Oblivion, we have a score by M83. What motivated this decision to go with another “contemporary” composer?

Joseph Kosinski: Well, Oblivion is an original story, so I wanted a soundtrack that sounded unique, and I had such a good time and success with recruiting Daft Punk to do the soundtrack for TRON: Legacy that I wanted to do something similar for Oblivion. I had to find the right artist from outside the film business who would exemplify the film’s sound. I had been listening to M83 when I wrote this story eight years ago, so it felt like they were one person I wanted to talk to. I talked to a couple different artists, but M83 seemed like a really good fit. His music is electronic, forward-looking, but at the same time it’s very emotional and this is a very emotional story. So, I teamed [M83’s] Anthony [Gonzalez] up with Joe Trapanese, who was the orchestrator on TRON, and together they’ve created a really unique score that suits the movie perfectly.


N: To satisfy my curiosity – I listen to a lot of these acts – who else did you reach out to originally?

JK: Let’s see…I talked to Boards of Canada.

N: Awesome.

JK: Ulrich Schnauss, William Orbit – I talked to a couple of different people, but Anthony was in Los Angeles; he had just finished his album, so he was available for the timeframe I needed, and it ended up being a great fit.


N: One thing that really stands out is the visual design of Oblivion. Case in point, we’re sitting in front of this massive Bubble Ship. Tell me about designing the film’s visual look.

JK: Well, the look of this film I kind of had in my head from the very beginning when I wrote it eight years ago. I wanted this clean technology set against this very rugged, naturalistic landscape, which ended up being Iceland. But, the Sky Tower and the Bubble Ship were those two initial elements that I had sketched – I did some images of them on the computer very early on. I worked with – starting from those initial ideas – my production designer Darren Gilford, who worked on TRON: Legacy, and Daniel Simon, who was a vehicle designer on TRON: Legacy. We worked for almost a year detailing out every control, every switch, every rivet, so they felt as real and as functional as possible. When we built both those objects, we went to a lot of effort to realize them at the absolute highest quality, and I’m really thrilled that people can see how much work went into making the Bubble Ship.

N: It’s really an impressive creation, especially up close like this. One of the other things I’ve read is that you guys used some pretty exciting camera technology – the 4K cameras. What can you tell us about that?  You’re charting new territory, so what sort of challenges did it present?

JK: Well, we shot with the new Sony F65, which had literally come off the assembly line a few weeks before we started shooting with it. It’s an 8K sensor that down-rezzes to 4K when it outputs, so it’s an extremely sharp image. My DP, Claudio Miranda, recently did some tests comparing the F65 to 65 mm film and found them very comparable in terms of sharpness, so it’s a bit like shooting digital 65 mm.

N: Did you have to leave it to render for like a month?

JK: Actually, it’s capturing in real time, so it gives you a tremendous amount of data. You have a lot of data pouring out of this system. But, for the locations where I wanted to shoot in Iceland, the detail of the landscape, the clarity in an actor’s face, the reflection in their eyes – people are going to see detail in this movie that they’re not used to seeing. I recommend people see it on the biggest screen possible – Digital IMAX would be perfect for this movie.


N: It definitely has that sense of scale that lends itself well to a massive screen like IMAX.

JK: Yeah, exactly.

N: With TRON: Legacy, you were working with a preexisting property that had a built-in fanbase, but Oblivion is a brand new story. What are some of the difficulties in taking a known quantity versus an unknown quantity and bringing it to the masses?

JK: It is a challenge, you know. If you look at all the big movies out there, most of them are sequels or based on something that’s very well known. Trying to get people out the door and into the theater to see something they don’t know is a challenge. Thankfully, there’s a couple movies recently that have done it very very well. Obviously, Avatar is the most successful film of all time. You can’t really argue with what James Cameron did with that movie; it’s just mind-boggling. But, also, Inception is another example of people really embracing an original story. It’s a spectacular movie, but the idea of people embracing a story they don’t know is very intriguing.

I think you’ve got to market the film so that people know that it’s an original story, but it also needs to feel familiar. They’ll know some of what they’re getting, but you also want to surprise them in the theater.

N: Based off of fan reaction to some of the trailers, Oblivion seems like it could be more of an action movie, but from what I’ve read, you consider it more of a thriller. Can you speak to what we can expect?

JK: Yeah, I think the marketing has positioned it as more of an action movie and it certainly has big action in it, but I’d call it more of a “mystery-thriller.” There’s drama, romance, action, spectacle – it’s kind of hard to put it in one box. That’s kind of why I like the story; it doesn’t fit into one category perfectly. It’s not what you’d expect.


N: Lately, it seems like post-apocalypse is the zeitgeist theme that people are latching on to. Why do you think it’s resonating so well with audiences?

JK: I don’t know – to me, it’s always been a very intriguing notion. When I think about films I saw that influenced this, I think about Silent Running, Omega Man, La Jetée. The post-apocalypse allows you to strip away humanity and focus on one character. What would it be like to be the last man on Earth? Those feelings of being the last man around were very intriguing to me from the beginning in making this movie. Now there are a few other films exploring the same theme; It seems like they’ve all got a different angle on it, but there’s something really profound about imagining what it’ll be like when the world we’re living in doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a matter of time, it’s going to happen some time….

N: Hopefully not too soon.

JK: Yeah, hopefully not as soon as Oblivion, but it’s a very intriguing notion to consider the time after our own.


N: TRON: Legacy was a huge film both in size and scope, but Oblivion feels bigger in every aspect. What was the experience like directing this compared to TRON: Legacy?

JK: Well, with Oblivion we were able to shoot a lot more on location. You can’t shoot on location in the world of TRON: Legacy. We built a lot of sets, but we shot indoors for most of it. With Oblivion, we were in Iceland for a month, New York for a week, Louisiana, California – we were all over the world dragging this Bubble Ship everywhere. It’s always a challenge shooting out in the elements, but Iceland has this amazing landscape. It’s no place to shoot – it’s very cold, even though it was the middle of summer. But that’s what making movies is all about: shooting in this place that’s only accessible by helicopter with Tom Cruise; I’ll never forget that.

N: Was the majority of it shot on location or evenly split between sound stages and outdoors?

JK: The Sky Tower stuff was all done on a stage, but we shot with front projection so it feels like it’s outside. But yeah, everything outside was done on location, so there’s very little green screen done on this movie.

N: Opting for more practical effects and things like that?

JK: Absolutely. Yes.

N: I know there’s going to be creatures in the film, the Scavs. What can you tell us about the creature design?

JK: Right, the Scavs, these creatures on the surface that make Jack’s job very difficult. They’re very mysterious; they move mostly at night, so Jack only gets glimpses of them on the satellite feed occasionally. He tries to avoid interacting with them because they’re so brutal. You’ll get a good glimpse of them within the first twenty minutes of the movie.

N: You’re quickly establishing yourself as one of the go-to sci-fi directors. Do you want to continue plumbing the depths of the genre or are you looking to expand into other territory?

JK: I mean, I love science fiction. I love what the genre affords in terms of big ideas. I love how it allows us to tell stories in new ways with twists and turns that you can’t anticipate, so I love that aspect of it. Certainly, there’s a lot of challenges in the production of a movie like this. As far as what I’ll do next, I have options in the sci-fi and non-sci fi arenas, so it’s all about the story, whichever story kind of captivates me. Because you need a story that will motivate you for the 2-3 year process it takes to bring a project like this to fruition.


N: What was your coolest moment on set? Like what moment did you step back and just think, “Holy shit, I did this”?

JK: I think seeing Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman together on camera for the first time, two icons like that working together, was amazing.

N: Especially since they have to listen to you.

JK: Yeah, it’s daunting, but to see those two guys together? I have so much admiration for them; I grew up watching their movies. To see them together for the first time in my film, though, is something I’ll never forget.

N: One last question: what would be inside your ideal burrito?

JK: My ideal burrito? Hmm…you know, I had some amazing burritos up in the Bay Area and I’m trying to think what my favorite one was. I think it was a steak burrito with guacamole, beans and rice. Solid Mission-style.

Oblivion is in theaters nationwide. Are you looking forward to the film? Let us know in the comments below!

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  2. CJ says:

    Not only did Joe Trapanese’s work with M83 deliver a great soundtrack for OBLIVION, Joe also delivered a great soundtrack for TRON: Uprising (do yourselves a favor, pick up both on disc, or legally download the extended version of OBLIVION – fuck do both and be fucking supportive vs being a dick who illegally downloads) ….

    I am enjoying what Joseph Kosinksi has twice delivered into cinemas (& thankfully, he found a Hollywood Studio willing to allow a PG-13 rating for a big budget sci fi film, which would have improved TRON: Legacy (in my opinion – even though I <3 that film). I am hoping he gets an opportunity to deliver an R rated gem (even if it has to be a Director's Cut released on disc later, because Sci Fi shouldn't be edited of content because the MPAA has a problem with tits and potty mouths and violent action (rolls eyes) ….